The gap between two doses of the Covishield COVID-19 vaccine can be increased to 12-16 weeks, a government panel recommended Thursday, according to a report by news agency PTI. No changes were suggested for Covaxin which remains at four to six weeks.
The National Technical Advisory Group on Immunization also said pregnant women can choose their vaccine and lactating women will be eligible after delivery. Currently neither is eligible to get the shots.
These recommendations will be sent to NEGVA – the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration – for approval before they are implemented.
Dr CN Ashwathnarayan, the Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka – one of several states to flag low vaccine stocks – later tweeted: “Extending the gap assists the government in carrying out the inoculation programme effectively”.
“Many countries follow this practice. In Canada the gap is three-four months. In the meantime, we are making all efforts to increase supply and explore local production options,” he said.
This is the second time in three months Covishield dosage intervals have been widened; in March states and UTs were told to increase the gap from 28 days to six-eight weeks “for better results”.
At that time the centre also said: “protection was enhanced if the second dose of Covishield was administered between six and eight weeks but not later than that”.
The changes prompted a sarcastic swipe from Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, who flagged the ever-widening recommended interval between doses.
“First, it was four weeks for the second dose, then six-eight weeks and now we are told 12-16 weeks. Is this because there are not enough stocks of vaccines… or because professional scientific advice says so?” he asked.
The widening of Covishield dosage intervals has been linked to increased efficacy.
A study published in international medical journal The Lancet on February 19 claimed a 26.2 per cent increase – from 55.1 per cent to 81.3 per cent – if doses were spaced 12 or more weeks apart.
However, recommended changes to intervals also come amid an acute shortage of doses as the manufacturer – Serum Institute of India – struggles to keep pace with demand.
Earlier today SII officials told the centre Covishield production will be increased to 10 crore doses – but only from August – and that June-July production “may also increase by some quantity”.
India is struggling to contain a devastating second wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths, with daily numbers now over three lakh for more than 21 consecutive days. The flood of cases has brought the country’s healthcare system to its knees, and stressed the need for rapid vaccination.
The national vaccination drive began on January 16 and over 17.5 crore doses have been administered so far, but vaccine coverage is still less than 2.5 per cent of the population.
A number of states, including national capital Delhi and Maharashtra, Kerala and Karnataka – three of the worst-affected – have floated global tenders for direct import of vaccines.